Gentle Decline 1/23: Homes & Habitations
Hello. This issue is about the near future. It's a future that includes likely and possible outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic, plus speculation about other pandemics, as well as climate material, so if that's going to bother you, I won't be the least bit offended if you put this aside for later, or don't read it at all. One of my other newsletters, Commonplace, is about food and isn't even a little bit apocalyptic (unless bread-making counts), so that might work for you instead. You can see the archive (all two issues of it) at that link.
A few things before I get properly started. Ospare, in Scattered Signal, had this to say:
We learn through experience, not prediction.
Even with a plan, unknowns foster.
Which is a very useful point, or pair of points, but they go on to say that having a plan, a map, a consideration of what's ahead, is still useful, and that we should update our maps as we go. I sent the first issue of Gentle Decline in August 2018, and I like to think I've learned some stuff since. So we'll look at updating the map in view of a new-ish world.
Next, I was giving out vaguely in the last issue about the response to the pandemic being what we need for climate crisis, but it has since become clear to me that part of the issue is that we reckon - as a species, apparently - that we can get through this by consuming the right things, which is not going to work for the other. I can't claim to have come to this realisation all by myself - it was voiced most precisely by Corey J. White in Nothing Here (to which I recommend you subscribe; it's extremely good value) but in a few other places too.
And Laurie Penny does an excellent collation of how the apocalypse maps we have had do not really describe the territory in which we find ourselves. To be fair, they won't ever - I've been trying hard here, but nothing I've written is going to ever describe the real world as it will be (or if it does, it'll be complete coincidence; the advice about being flexible is here for a reason).
Finally, I've gotten a ko-fi account, so if anyone wants to throw a coin to their witcher local doom-monger, you can do so at: https://ko-fi.com/drewshiel
So. I continue to believe that a lot of people will get almost aggressively back to normal once the pandemic is deemed over, and as much as they can as restrictions are gradually lifted. In some cases, this is going to backfire; I guarantee you there will be some or even many nightclubs that turn out to be hotspots for a second wave, and if the governments in those places are following the Hammer and Dance approach, restrictions will slam right back into place. Eventually, though, there'll be a vaccine, and we can start trying to get back to normal, modulo the anti-vax eejits.
But there's going to be one major difference: we now know (at the experiential level, not the vague conceptual one) that pandemics can happen, and that lockdown is a likely response from the authorities. A lot of our future choices are going to be made with that in mind. If you go away somewhere, can you get home in time if a lockdown is announced? If you're getting a new place to live, would you be able to spend six weeks there non-stop without going barmy? If you're getting a new housemate, are they someone you can stand to be locked in with for weeks? If you're moving out on your own, can you handle nothing but your own company for a prolonged period? Do you have stores (and room for stores and money to buy stores) of the things you need and the things you like? If you're changing jobs, does the new job allow working from home, and if not, what did they do for their workers during this episode? And so forth. Even if there isn't another pandemic for years, this will still shape our thinking.
There will also be panics in the future when there aren't pandemics. Just as people go out and buy the shelves bare of bread (and presumably hereafter, now that we all know how to make it ourselves, flour and yeast) when there's a possibility of snow in places that don't often get it, so there'll be a rumour of a particularly virulent flu or vaccine-resistant measles or whatever, and people will promptly start getting ready for things to shut down. This will fade out over a few years, unless the vaccine takes longer to come through than expected, or there's a different pandemic within that time. We've been incredibly lucky not have any such for about a hundred years, given the number of people on the planet now. If it doesn't fade out - or is stronger to begin with because the lockdowns last longer or recur a few times this time around - then the things I'm describing below will be stronger effects.
As is, most of these will be mild tendencies, not mass movements, and even if they are, not everyone will do them. There will always be some people who are trying to maintain things exactly as they were, and there will be others who just don't think enough to do things any differently. Both of these can be seen in the two groups of people most noted for breaking lockdowns at the moment - the moderately to very rich, who don't think the rules apply to them, and teenagers, who... are being rebellious, really.
People are going to look for living arrangements suitable for lockdowns. They're probably not going to go out of their way for this - unless they had a downright traumatic time during this one - but if they need to move for other reasons, this will be a factor. Apartments will be much less attractive, unless they have roof gardens, extensive balconies, or other access to a private outdoor space. Even within the context of apartments, people are going to look for bigger kitchens, more storage space, laundry facilities, and so on, possibly at the expense of number of bedrooms or size of bedrooms. The same applies to houses, but people will also be looking at how much of a garden there is, whether it has walls, is overlooked, and so on. Then there's location, and it'll be a slightly different approach than the current. In Ireland, this will certainly be "what's within 2km?" Proximity to public transport will be considered less important; proximity to parks and forest areas more so. The 2km circle will also, ideally, contain some shops, a medical centre of some kind, a post office, and so on. These are conditions which are mostly well served by any large village in Ireland, mind, but there are areas of Dublin that can't properly do so - in some cases due to large areas of suburbia, and in others due to population density.
Next, people are going to be paying more attention to who they're living with. Many people in their 20s and 30s are currently living with their parents still (or again) due to absolutely batshit property markets. In some cases, that will have worked out well; older people will have been able to avoid exposure to shops, and so on. In other cases, families who haven't spent more than a few hours together in a decade will have gone quite mad by the end of the lockdown, and be looking for any other accommodation. And some other arrangements of shared housing will have gone well, or not well, and those involved will want to either hang on to them or make adjustments. Hitherto, it has been possible to treat the place where you live as sleeping and storage space, and not really living space, and plenty of people in cities have done just that at various points in history - that's not true right now, and a lot of people are pretty uncomfortable because of it.
Then, work. The pandemic has demonstrated pretty categorically that knowledge work can be done from anywhere, and a lot of people in the West do knowledge work. Whole companies are operating perfectly well from people's homes, and were it not for the necessity to pick up the post from the office, it's pretty clear that they could just be got rid of. Some places, for whom the office rent is one of their major costs, may be looking at this possibility right now. Even in companies that do need physical presence in some areas don't need the accountancy department in the office all the time, or the marketing people. And while middle management has generally reacted with horror - how will they know they're managers if they can't see their underlings? - the actual data of work continuing perfectly well, particularly when you allow for a global crisis unfolding in real time, will make it hard for anyone to argue that it doesn't work.
It's also worth noting that this exposes massive hypocrisy in the management of many companies, who have denied work-from-home permission to people who have needed it for disability, for family, for health, etc, over the last decade or so (while in many cases allowing it for the C-level people or particular favoured employees). Not that exposure of hypocrisy actually does anything to most corporate entities, but they don't like it pointed out.
But distributed work, work from home, work from not-the-office, is going to be a more important factor from now on. Remote meetings work perfectly well (and a number of people have noted that they're in fewer meetings these days, because makework meetings are much more evident on Zoom or similar media), and if remote interviews were to be become a thing, a great deal of the offline could smoothly become online. The extroverts can, optionally, go in to the reduced-floorspace office if they really have to.
These things have knock-on effects and impacts on life after-and-during climate crisis. Much of it has to do with living space, which has been one of the long-running themes of this newsletter. So we can now say, "Move inland, plant potatoes, and make sure you like the people you're living with". Being slightly less facile about it, the vast majority of the advice I've been giving is valid in a post-pandemic, pandemic-capable lifestyle - you want to have secure, safe housing, not be completely dependent on external supplies of food, be able to educate and entertain yourself, and to have a network of people you can rely on. I don't know that I've really hit on the concept of liking the place in which you're living, though, so let me poke at that.
There's a certain concept of post-apocalyptic interior design that I like out there. It involves a lot of recycled and upcycled goods, low lighting, curtains over doors, rag rugs, blankets, wood-fired stoves, wind-up record players, and so forth. For example, have a look at these. There's a strong overlap with the "cabin aesthetic" here, and for fairly solid reason. But your climate-secure residence doesn't have to, and very likely won't, look like this. For a start, the wind-up record player is likely not to be a going concern; the solar-powered Spotify-enabled device is much more likely. Likewise, solar and wind power (whether on the grid or right there on the property feeding back into the grid) will be much more likely than the wood-burning stove and accoutrements. Although that said, I've been honestly amazed at the amount of firewood that we've pulled out of one small back garden in the weekend's cleanup, so having a useful way to dispose of that and get some heat from it seems like a useful thing too. I'm in full support of the recycled and upcycled furniture bit, but I don't expect Ikea or other large-network flatpack providers to go away. I do think that an eclectic, comfortable, lived-in look will be very much in, though.
Other aspects of liking the place you're living in might involve a good view (although if you've taken my previous advice on getting a southward-sloping sheltered place, you may well have that already), having a good level of tree coverage in the area (prevents landslides and other erosion in heavy rain, prevents flooding in general), and having decent infrastructure locally. And I know it sometimes sounds like I'm recommending a cottage way out in the sticks, but our current place is meeting a lot of requirements in what's more usually a dormitory town for the Greater Dublin Conurbation.
There's a lot of stuff out there saying that the world has changed. In that context, I'd refer anyone reading back to William Gibson; "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." Nothing about the ways in which the pandemic is being handled are new; disabled or immuno-compromised folk, or those living in remote areas, have been living more or less like this for a long time now. There's just a different distribution of living arrangements.
This issue brought to you by the continued Irish lockdown (now until May 5th), a vigorous bank-holiday-weekend clearing of the back garden, and the delivery of three boxes of beer and cider. I have absolutely no idea what will be in the next issue, so we can find out together.
If you feel that Gentle Decline would be useful to someone else in your life, please forward it on and/or show them the subscription link at https://tinyletter.com/gentledecline - and there's also an intermittently updated Twitter feed at @gentledecline. I'd love to have more people reading this and being, in some sense, better prepared for what's slowly coming.
And if you're inclined to support this newsletter in a monetary sort of way, feel free to use my ko-fi link: https://ko-fi.com/drewshiel